How to Deepen the Interiority 

What Is Interiority 

Publishers and editors may tell you that “you need more interiority.” But what does that even mean? According to Merriam-Webster, interiority is “interior quality or character, inner life or substance: psychological existence.”

So in essence, having more interiority means showing the inner life of the character and revealing more of their psyche: thoughts, feelings, inner struggles.

Even in a plot-driven story, you need some interiority. You may not need to go as deep, but it doesn’t matter how great your plot is, if the reader doesn’t know the characters on some level, they aren’t going to be engaged.

Currently, I am reading The Girl Who Was Taken. This is a plot-driven story, so the interiority doesn’t go super deep, but the author still employs some of the tactics this blog addresses, and my favorite parts are when he does. So as often as you need to ask what is your character feeling, and let the reader in on that.


Word Choice

When revealing the inner psyche of your character, word choice matters.

Since interiority helps you show instead of tell and deepens the POV, the same word choice advice with deep POV applies: don’t use filter words and use the character’s vocabulary and style of speaking.

When you use filter words, you’re reporting. And people do not report their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They just have those thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

So get rid of filter words like

  • Saw
  • Noticed
  • Thought
  • Knew
  • Felt
  • Tasted
  • Wondered
  • Realized
  • Looked
  • Seemed
  • Decided

Think about it. When you look at something, you take in what you’re seeing, and you only use the word “look” when you’re reporting to someone else what you saw. When you decide something, you just make the decision, and you only use the word “decided” when you’re reporting it to someone else.

So all these filter words put the reader at a distance because they’re not experiencing things as the character is—they’re hearing a report about it afterward.

Interiority is about experiencing, feeling, and thinking in real time.

Example 

Original: She woke up when she heard the robins singing outside her window. Delighted, she threw open the window and saw the smallest bird look right at her. It cocked its head to the side. She reached out her hand and gently felt the soft tufts of fluff.

Revised: The robins cheerfully whistled, waking her from her sleep. Delighted, she threw open the window. The smallest bird looked right at her, cocking its head to the side. She reached out her hand. She smiled when the soft tufts of fluff tickled her fingertips.

The rewrite still needs some work, but I purposefully left it nearly the same with just the filter words removed to show the difference there.

Whenever you want to create moments of interiority, the word choice should match the character’s experiences, educational level, preferences, personality, etc.

If your character is not into fashion, it makes zero sense to use brand-specific words when describing what a character is wearing. It wouldn’t be in the character’s vocab to say, “She came toward me wearing a Johnstons of Elgin cashmere sweater.” Heck, they may not even notice what the character was wearing at all.

If your character is a sophisticated, formal adult, they aren’t going to say, “As if” when someone accuses them of something.

In third person, you can use the narrator’s voice at times. So if you’re in the narrator’s voice, then you can use whatever words you want. But if you’re needing to employ deep interiority in a given scene, do not let the narrator butt in. Keep every single word in the character’s voice.

A reader should be able to tell when you’re in the character’s head and when it’s an outside narrator. And they will be pulled out of the story if the narration is the character’s voice, but your word choice doesn’t reflect that.


Emotions 

To get inside a character, we need to know what they are feeling. But as you have learned from showing and telling, naming an emotion is telling and doesn’t really help a reader to feel the character.

So you want to show their emotions. It is common to do so through action beats. However, some beats have zero interiority.

Take “she smiled and nodded.”  Just because someone smiles doesn’t mean they are happy. We smile when we are sad, overwhelmed, happy, and so on. 

To have deep interiority, the way you show it needs to be specific to your character. While humans have the same emotions, we don’t all experience and express them in the same way.

The Emotion Thesaurus can help you physically describe a character’s emotion, but you can’t just necessarily pick any of them and call it good. Think specifically about how your character would physically show that emotion.

And guess what? Using a physical description isn’t the only way to show a character’s emotion; in fact, it is often the weaker way.

Where do our emotions come from? Thoughts!

You can show a character storming off and sulking, which is certainly better than saying the character was angry. Of course, if that character isn’t one to storm off, you may instead have them throw the pen they were holding or clench their fist. But either way, this is showing emotions through the physical.

And to get deeper interiority, you need to sometimes show emotion through thoughts.

What did that character think that caused them to be so angry? And what words would they use to think that? This can be more powerful than having the character storm off.

And this leads me to the main component of interiority: character’s thoughts.


Character’s Thoughts 

The average person has more than 6,000 thoughts a day.

So we certainly don’t need to know everything a character is thinking.

But as MK Gandhi said, “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” So if you want us to know your character(s), we have to know their thought(s).

I was hired by a Wall Street Journal’s bestselling author to specifically deepen his interiority. To do this, I inserted the character’s thoughts at various moments throughout the book, and I found spots to change the narration into thoughts.  Let’s look at a few examples of where I changed the narration into thoughts:

Original: She’d managed to make it through the session without crying, but the tears wouldn’t stay held back forever.

Revised: Another “successful” session. Whatever. At least she still hadn’t cried in front of the doctor. That was success in her book.

Original:  Remembering [Katie] reopened the wound in her soul, but the thought of losing the kids pulled her down into a well of despair.

Revised: [Katie]! She clenched her teeth. No. She wouldn’t think about that. Her kids. Oh God, she couldn’t lose her kids. Gripping the window ledge, she forced herself to breathe. In, out, in.

Do you see how much more you feel the emotions when you hear the character’s thoughts? 

Make sure the thoughts are realistic to how humans actually think.

Questions. It isn’t realistic to have your character think too much in question form. Sure, we think things like, What on earth was he thinking? But we don’t typically ask ourselves questions in our thoughts.

If you resort to questions, it can read like the character is talking to the reader rather than thinking to themselves. So use questions sparingly.

Unless, of course, your character does question themselves in their thoughts. But that would be a unique attribute, so not realistic to have just any character think in questions a lot. 

Already known information. Another unrealistic thought is thinking of details a character already knows and wouldn’t think about in that moment.

Unrealistic thoughts: Focus. My boss is going to fire me if I don’t improve my shots.

Realistic thoughts: Focus. I can’t lose my job. He let out his breath and closed his eyes. Squaring his shoulders, he studied the center dot. Locked it into his viewfinder and squeezed. Damn it. Jared makes it look so easy. Half an inch. My job rests on half an inch.

The first one had him thinking my boss is going to fire me if I don’t improve my shots. He already knows that. So that isn’t a realistic way for him to think about this situation.

A common known situation is thinking about the “why.” Why they are doing what they are doing, why their house and/or yard was designed the way it was, why their town imposed a new curfew, why they struggle with something, etc.

They already know this, so the only purpose for it is to reveal the why to the reader, but it’s ineffective since they are unrealistic thoughts.

Of course, we don’t always know the why behind something. We may not know why we do what we do, and we’re trying to figure it out. In that case, thinking about the “why” is not unrealistic. But it often is, so look out for that. 

As mentioned earlier, thoughts are a great way to show emotion and they deepen the interiority. Compare these two examples where emotions are shown through the physical and where they are shown through the mind.

Physical: They called her name. Her breath quickened and her chest tightened as she walked to the front of the classroom. She swallowed and licked her dry lips. “I w-w-will t-t-talk about Af-f-fric-c-ca.” When she saw Fred snicker, she felt her cheeks burn. She looked at the teacher, who nodded. Her next few sentences came out easily, and her shoulders relaxed. But when she got to the part about her beloved jungle, she froze. Her heart hammered against her chest. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She heard a gunshot and someone screamed. She struggled to open her eyes to face her fear.

“Zola, open your eyes. You will see you’re okay.” She felt a pat on her shoulder and finally opened her eyes, and when she did, she was surrounded. She gasped and tears fell from her eyes as she stumbled out of the classroom.

Mind: They called her name. It was her name, but it shouldn’t be her name. She wasn’t that name. Stand up, Zola. I am Zola. I am calm. Keeping her gaze forward, she walked up the classroom aisle. But Zola was gone. Calm was gone. The little girl with braids, always holding her teddy, was gone.

Her teddy. Focus on her teddy. That’s what he said. Envision teddy while looking above their heads at the wall. Now that she was at the front, all she had to do was turn around. Just a classroom. Just kids.

She jerked around and licked her dry lips. “I w-w-will t-t-talk about Af-f-fric-c-ca.” Fred snickered. It had to be Fred. Don’t look. Eyes on the wall. But he snickered again, and she looked. At least he couldn’t see the effect it had on her, not like Noella. Her skin was so fair it betrayed her every time. Noella. Forget teddy. Dr. Kazinata was wrong. She didn’t need to find Zola again. She needed to be Noella.

Her next few sentences came out easily, and her shoulders relaxed. It was easy to talk about what she loved. “It is home to the second largest jungle, the Con—” A gunshot ricocheted off the trees. She closed her eyes. That sound. The worst sound. They had found her. Someone screamed. Not someone. Her. 

“Zola, open your eyes. You will see you’re okay.” The hand on her shoulder wasn’t a kadogos’. Too big. Too kind. She opened her eyes. Little soldiers everywhere. They were just kids, but killers nonetheless. Kofi had been a kid. A kid with a gun. She ran.

Your character should have thoughts that don’t match up with their words or the emotions they are physically conveying.

This example comes from Shaunta Grimes in an article published in The Write Brain.

“What’s for dinner?” John asked.

“I don’t know.” What did you make? She hadn’t even come all the way into the house from work yet. Her shoulders ached, her head was splitting, and she was still wearing three-inch heels on her swollen feet.

“Well.” No surprise that he didn’t bother to look up from his video game. He rarely gave her his undivided attention. “We have to eat something.”

You could offer to cook, you know. It wouldn’t kill you. “Spaghetti?”

The interiority shows that Mary is mad, while her words don’t show that at all.  


Conclusion 

As often as you need to ask, What is this character really feeling? Then remove filter words, use the character’s vocab, and show those emotions through thoughts and specific physical actions.

Make sure that you aren’t just repeating what was said in the dialogue or narration and you don’t simply have the character think what they are about to say.

Instead, use interiority with the intent of getting to the why without stating the why. What a character does is far less exciting than why they did it.

 

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About Me

With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

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